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Opinion Do Tucker Carlson’s viewers take him at his word?

Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on March 29, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Just how seriously do viewers of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” take his off-kilter rants? The Fox News host appears to have set up an experiment on Monday night to test that proposition.

The topic that night was governments’ mask mandates, a proven ratings generator with the network’s conservative audience. Such mandates aren’t just wrongheaded, Carlson argued — they’re abusive. “As for forcing children to wear masks outside, that should be illegal. Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid in Walmart, call the police immediately,” said Carlson. “Contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives.”

It was the latest installment in a game that Carlson plays just about every week: How egregiously can I offend common decency and still keep my job? In this case, quite egregiously: Errant calls to child protective services, after all, can break up families, not to mention gum up government efforts to identify actual child abuse. “Everything that steals more time from hotline operators — every additional false allegation that leads to keeping someone reporting a rare case of actual serious child abuse on hold — means less time to get to the relatively few real cases in time,” writes Richard Wexler, executive director for the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, in an email.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday announced that vaccinated people needn’t wear masks outdoors, except in crowded situations, so there are clearly grounds to reassess public policy on their use. Yet the call for meddling in people’s private lives contradicts any of Carlson’s small-government credentials. “Carlson is now seeking to use the power of the state to harass and immiserate his political opponents,” wrote the Atlantic’s David Graham.

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There’s another consideration, though, regarding Carlson’s depraved appeal: Are people heeding it?

Determined to answer that question, the Erik Wemple Blog emailed social service agencies in more than 40 states to ask whether they’d registered any complaints related to Carlson’s appeal. As of press time, Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Delaware, Nevada, Washington, Arizona, Alaska, New York and New Jersey had reported no such complaints or no awareness of them.

What would happen if someone did follow through on Carlson’s advice? Here’s a statement from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services: “In no circumstance would a child wearing a mask in public to reduce or prevent the spread of disease meet Nevada’s definition of abuse or neglect of a child pursuant to NRS 432B. The State’s child welfare agencies have limited resources to address real issues of abuse or neglect and if Nevada does see a surge of nonsense calls, children in threat of actual harm will be in increased danger.” Other states provided similar statements.

After the Erik Wemple Blog posted a Twitter thread with updates on the states’ responses, some Carlson allies claimed we were taking all of this too seriously. “It should go without saying that no, you should not, in fact call the police or CPS on parents with kids in masks outdoors. It should also go without saying that Tucker Carlson is not, in fact, seriously telling his viewers to do that,” wrote the author of a piece on Twitchy that helpfully aggregates the sentiment.

In light of that reaction, we asked Fox News: Was Carlson kidding or just engaging in satire here? Whatever the answer, it’s a wonderful world where you say something with a straight face — and then, when critics point out how offensive or dangerous the remarks were, your supporters flock to the just-joking defense. For further examples of this dynamic, look no further than President Trump, who took this exit ramp over and over during his time in the White House.

Let’s assume that the Twitchy crowd is right — Carlson was joshing or engaging in a thought exercise, and we here at the Erik Wemple Blog failed to pick up on the signals. That would mean that Carlson was satirically calling on people to report parents to child protective services — an instrument that ruins lives when it misfires. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg tweeted this point along with a link to her 2015 story in the Nation about the “threats and intrusions poor, minority families have long endured” from CPS.

For a more contemporary look at the plenary power of such agencies, listen to “Do No Harm,” a podcast series from NBC News and Wondery, hosted by NBC News reporter Mike Hixenbaugh. Sample the agony of the parents in that series, and then consider: Are child protective services a good thing to snicker about?

The whole episode should hearten the lawyers who defended Carlson against a 2019 defamation case. The judge in that case, upon tossing the complaint against Fox News, wrote, “Fox persuasively argues...that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes.” Let’s hope so.

Read more:

Leana S. Wen: It’s good to resume the J&J vaccine. But younger women should be warned against it.

Jennifer Rubin: We should soon stop catering to the vaccine holdouts

The Post’s View: The U.S. has vaccinated half of adults. The problem is the second half.

Molly Roberts: Shedding masks — and a bit of our pandemic selves